One of the Islamist groups that seized northern Mali earlier this year was claiming victory on Sunday over Tuareg fighters who tried to dislodge them, residents and a spokesman for the group said.
A statement from the Tuareg group denied they had lost any of their fighters, insisting instead that they had killed dozens of Islamists.
Fighters of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) near the town of Gao, in the northeast, celebrated what they said was their win over Tuareg rebels late Sunday.
“They are firing in the air and saying Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar (God is greater), we have won,” one resident said.
A six-vehicle convoy of their fighters drove into the town from the north firing in the air “as if they had just come from the front”, another witness told AFP.
The town of Gao and the region of the same name have been held by fighters of MUJAO since June, when they chased out their former allies, Tuareg fighters of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA).
Abour Dardar, a leading figure inside MUJAO, said: “It’s to celebrate our victory over the MLNA.”
On Friday, MLNA fighters attacked the Islamist fighters but suffered a heavy defeat that saw about a dozen of their men killed, regional security sources said. Among those injured was a senior MLNA commander, security sources in both Mali and Burkina Faso added.
To prepare for a possible new offensive, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is linked to MUJAO, sent about 300 reinforcements from Timbuktu, some 300 kilometres west of Gao, witnesses said.
But in a statement, the MNLA denied having suffered any losses.
They did acknowledge that nine of their fighers had been wounded, but said that the Islamists fighters had fled the field having lost 55 of their fighters, with around a hundred more wounded.
Earlier Sunday, Ouagadougou the capital of Burkina Faso, Mali’s southern neighbour, Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra held talks with the chief west African regional mediator, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, he acknowledged that Bamako would eventually hold talks both with the Tuareg MNLA and Ansar Dine, another of the Islamist groups controlling northern Mali.
“Dialogue is inevitable,” he said. Both groups were made up of fellow Malians, he added.
Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and the ethnic Tuareg separatist group MNLA announced on Friday that they were ready for talks with Bamako after meeting Compaore.
Mali’s desert north has been under the control of rebel groups since shortly after a March 22 coup.
But the two other groups that have seized the region, AQIM and MUJAO are both made up mainly of foreign fighters.
The talks would not address “terrorists and drug traffickers (who) for the most part are not Malian citizens”, Diarra said.
Diarra was appointed interim prime minister in April to help restore civilian rule after the March coup, appointing former junta members in the key ministerial portfolios of defence, internal security and territorial administration.
The new push for dialogue comes after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed on a plan to send 3,300 troops into Mali to reclaim the north. The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.
Ansar Dine last week backtracked from an earlier demand to see strict Islamic law, or sharia, imposed across all of Mali, saying instead it should only be implemented in the Kidal region it currently controls.
The international community has become increasingly concerned at the actions of the Islamists groups in Mali’s massive desert north.
They have imposed a harsh form of Islamic sharia law, stoning people to death and amputating hands and feet from suspected thieves.